NEW YORK CITY--Modern dance and classical ballet choreographers rarely, if ever, use the word rescue when asked why they make their art. But that word constantly crops up in interviews with the directors of two Mayan dance groups in Guatemala, Julio Mateo Tecum, director of Grupo Cultural Uk'Ux Pop Wuj (which is slated to appear at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City, November 15-16), and Sebastian Tol Chan, director of Grupo Gucumatz. Tecum explains that he and his dancers travel the countryside, interviewing elderly Guatemalans about their memories of Mayan dance, in order to rescue Mayan culture from the consequences of European colonization.
The European conquerors of South America, beginning in the fifteenth century, imposed Christianity on indigenous populations and exploited them as a steady supply of labor. But Mayan culture, despite oppression, did not disappear. Traditional clothing, agricultural techniques, closeness to nature, social and family organization, and dance persist to this day. In fact, according to W. Richard West, Jr., director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., "Dance is the very embodiment of indigenous values ... [and] reflects the vast capacity of native peoples to endure culturally."
The Mayan dances have been preserved and performed by cofradias, quasi-religious groups composed mostly of men and housed in independent churches. Tecum's and Tol Chan's groups represent a break from church control.
A typical dance of the Quiche Maya of Chichicastenango depicts Sijolaj, a king in the time before bad people and robbery existed, who rides on horseback and burns with fireworks a basket made of sugar cane, expressing his happiness for a good harvest.
Religious oppression forced the Maya to hide their dances, so Sijolaj was disguised or identified as Saint Thomas, the patron saint of Chichicastenango, in order to fool the Spaniards.
While one sees in these dances Saint Thomas and the Christian sign of the cross, one also sees the hands gesturing in coversation with the gods; offerings of flowers, lights, and incense; animal sacrifice; and specific requests for help with rain, the harvest, and the hunt--elements that predate and have survived the Conquest. …